How Expat Life Changed My Ideas of Thanksgiving and the Meaning of ‘Home’

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Expat Thanksgiving:

For as long as I can remember, Thanksgiving has been one of the holidays that has always given me a sense of home, no matter how that meaning changed for me over the years as I moved from country to country.

Thanksgiving turkey in Chinaimage : China Performance Group

One of the sometimes more difficult aspects of living in another country is that you want to recreate holidays the culture around you doesn’t celebrate. Sometimes, they are holidays I honestly didn’t care about much. Somehow, the ideas of your childhood holidays become more important when you live abroad many years. For me, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays (Side note: I don’t espouse to the idea of the great gathering of pilgrims and Indians because we all know how that turned out).

My idea today of Thanksgiving is simple: gather friends or family, eat turkey, drink good wine, and spend time together.

Oddly enough, I probably had some of my biggest Thanksgivings of the last decade in China (seriously- in China they teach about it a lot in school and online!). Now, I am trying to finally create that same feeling in my current ‘home’: Munich, Germany.

Over the years as an expat, it is one holiday that I haven’t tried to adapt to another culture or country, but instead, to recreate to fit my own sense of tradition, friendship, and happiness. And of course, a sense of home.

Thanksgiving as a kid

As a child, some of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving constitute some of the best moments in my childhood. Every year, my family piled into the car with my mom, dad, younger sister, and sometimes our Springer Spaniel, Frisky, to embark on the 10-hour journey from Rochester, Minnesota, to Bluffton, Indiana, where my grandpa lived.

For me, this was the one chance to see my dad’s side of the family during the year. My dad’s family seemed incredible large and mysterious to me, as if every single year, we simply increased in both people and in food quantity, exponentially. As a kid, I remember wandering through the 1970s thick, fluffy blue carpet, with streaks of what I remember as a neon green sprouting out of the enormous tufts of yarny threads, observing all the commotion that went on in preparation for the afternoon Thanksgiving feast.

Kids on Thanksgiving

This is a nice example of what our kid’s table looked like even though it’s not my photo 🙂

In the morning, I awoke to my aunts quibbling over how long to cook the turkey, while my dad prepared the apple, pumpkin, and rhubarb pies and even let me whip the cream. I remember how wonderful all the spices and smells wafted throughout my grandpa’s farmhouse. When the family arrived in clumps, kids, teens, and my dad’s first, second, third cousins and aunts and uncles all arrived. It seemed like everyone had a story, ‘this is your great-uncle Kenny, your grandma’s brother, who that one time …. ‘ or ‘this is your dad’s cousin so-in-so, he’s a bit weird, just so you know. No one ever figured out why.’

Once the food was served, it was the biggest, never-ending, delectable feast any kid could ever dream of; it had to be, as we were almost 75 people. The table in the basement spread over 20 feet long, and was filled with two, enormous 25 pound turkeys, enormous bowls of stuffing, overflowing colorful bowls of beets, green beans, green onions carefully wrapped in cream cheese and corned beef, and pies of every fruit and assorted crust. My dad’s family was very loud, and all over the enormous basement, one could hear loud voices billowing over one another, howls of laughter erupting from different corners of the room, and children’s giggles. The older guys sat at the table playing hands poker before the football game started, while the kids went to play in the barn outside.

Once my grandpa passed away when I was 17, everything changed. We never had Thanksgiving with my dad’s family again. Over the years, Thanksgiving lost importance to me; my parents got divorced and lived different places, and I had to choose where to spend Thanksgiving. I started to hate it. I stopped caring.

Moving Abroad

When I first moved out of the country, it was to Mexico, followed by England, Italy, and Argentina. When I was in university, Thanksgiving kind of stopped being important. It reminded me of a time together with family that I would never have again. But a funny thing happened the first year when I moved to China.

The China Thanksgiving

I was living in a small city in China where I was only 1 of 4 foreigners in the entire city of a million people. Everything was different. The language, the food, the culture, my job, the environment. We didn’t fit there and we knew it. Despite the kindness of the Chinese people, China is a very alienating place to be during the holidays. It’s generally impossible to be with your family for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and I knew when I moved to China in 2006, that I would not see my family for at least a year.

Thanksgiving in China 2006

That year, I felt the need to find Thanksgiving dinner anyway. But not only that, I wanted to be with people who I cared about. I wanted to eat, drink, laugh, and feel part of something again, something that I lost a very long time ago, in a country I once considered home. That year in China, a few friends of mine had Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house with some Chinese friends and colleagues who cooked some amazing Chinese dishes for us.
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The camaraderie, food and wine and feeling of happiness were wonderful, even though I didn’t get turkey and gravy, which I would have loved. But my new ‘family’ and ‘home’ was finally falling into place; I appreciated it more than any Thanksgiving since my grandpa died.

 

A Very Merry, Colombian Thanksgiving?

When I moved to Beijing, I didn’t have many American friends, but I didn’t want to miss Thanksgiving, or a chance to recreate a holiday that made me feel I was home, even if home was China. Indeed, China was my home, and I called it home until I moved last year to Munich, Germany. In Beijing, it so happened that my Colombian friends were missing turkey in China, as they pointed out how special it was because they usually enjoyed it on Christmas.

pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving

We ended up ordering a Thanksgiving turkey for 10 of us, and everyone brought a bottle of red wine. It was the happiest holiday celebration I can remember. In fact, I was the only American there, and my friends from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, and Malaysia, all asked questions about the stuffing, gravy and the ‘red stuff’ (cranberry sauce). Pumpkin Pie was a bit too American, however, and absolutely nobody liked it!

Every year, across the world, in Beijing, China, we made a tradition of gathering close friends and eating turkey and mashed potatoes, drinking wine and laughing. My last Beijing Thanksgiving; we had 20 kilos of turkey and friends from absolutely every corner of the globe.

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Grateful for Germany

Three years ago, having just arrived in Munich without friends or know-how, my German boyfriend and I managed to find a Thanksgiving dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, but I admit I felt a sense of displacement and loss. Thanksgiving always filled my heart with people and a sense of expat unity.

Two years ago in Germany, I invited my old friends from China who now live in Paris and Germany, to come and eat Thanksgiving turkey with me and my German boyfriend along with my new German friends. Sure, I don’t have the same sense of home yet in Munich, because it took me years to make a life in China. But started taking back my own special idea of Thanksgiving this year.

Thanksgiving Turkey in Germany

Here is the 6.5 kilo turkey I made last year!

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Last year, I was lucky enough to attend an American Thanksgiving here in Munich hosted my American friend and I have to say, that was the best Thanksgiving I have had in a long time. Gratefully, I get to attend this year as well. 🙂

I have a much greater appreciation for traditional holidays now (won’t go into the wrong-doings that created Thanksgiving). Today, the holiday is about turkey, friends, and wine.

For me, having been an expat for 10 years now, Thanksgiving means a sense of belonging and the warmth of home, wherever that home may be.

What about you-what does Thanksgiving mean to you? 

Do you celebrate it abroad as an expat or even if you aren’t American?

What are your favorite Thanksgiving memories?

Send your Thanksgiving photos to me! I will be posting some of mine this year and hopefully dig up some more old ones! 

How to travel alone after a breakup: 5 tips to plan your trip better

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Why travel after a breakup?

So you just got out of a relationship. You’re hurt. You’re confused. You aren’t sure how to put your emotions in order again and how to cope with the pain and confusion. This could be a time for you to travel.

‘Escapist!’ I can practically hear you scream. But hear me out…

This is a subject that doesn’t often come up in conversation when it comes to travel. It’s no secret that a breakup or divorce can be one of the most devastating experiences in a person’s life. However, it should be noted that for many, traveling alone can be a way to discover a new place and find some inner strength again in the process.

It could be just the thing you need to pick yourself up. And it could be the key to healing.

Why? Honestly, you’re already out of your comfort zone so you might as well go a litte further. Nothing tears you up like a breakup. That feeling of vulnerability can push you to destructive measures, or more positive ones such as exploring new places, challenging and re-centering yourself .

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Over the years, I have met many men and women who decided to travel for short or long periods after a breakup. Everyone has their reasons. Sometimes people need to find themselves again. Some people need to figure out their direction and also be reminded of what they’re capable of.

Should I travel alone after a breakup?

Of course, everyone is different. Maybe you don’t feel the need to go travel alone after a break up because you tend to cope with emotions differently.

Sure, some people may find they heal better after a breakup by throwing themselves into a job, exercise, or their social lives. But for others, it’s too easy to fall into negative habits such as drinking too much, overeating or under eating, isolating themselves and falling into depression. Travel is better. Sometimes a ticket out of town is exactly what we need.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s still escapism! No, it’s not. Sometimes, the only way to clear your head is to remove yourself from a painful situation so you can clearly evaluate it from afar. Exploration and adventure can be the key to finding peace, and healing a broken heart. Meeting new people, talking about life and finding new connections in foreign places can help you regain your sense of confidence again. You might even make some really good friends along the way. I know I have. I even met a French girl in Crete and a German girl who were doing the exactly the same thing.

Plus, after a breakup, you’re hurt, you’re angry. You’re vulnerable. Buy a ticket and go put yourself back together in a new place.

5 things to remember when you plan a trip alone

#1 Choose Your Destination Wisely

It’s about you. What do you need now? Rest and relaxation and a place of beauty? Solitude or Socializing? Adventure? Do you need A challenge and to test yourself or do something you’ve always wanted to do?

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Geographical Considerations: 

Does it bother you to be in countries where you don’t speak the language? Some people love a cultural challenge and the excitement of culture shock. For some people, this makes the trip intimidating and extremely unenjoyable.

Think carefully about whether you would be ok with a challenge that involves not always being able to explain what you want. Are you flexible with what you eat? Would you be ok ordering chicken if you didn’t know what part?

Are you ok with pointing at someone’s table and saying: ‘I’ll have what he’s having!’ This can be both empowering and also highly annoying for others.

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Also, be aware that some touristy destinations can be great for solo travelers because they have a lot of hostels. But those certain places are more likely to attract couples too. If you choose a beach as your place of respite, research destinations like Croatia, Italy, and Greece before heading to an island alone.

Some islands there are perfect for solo travelers and others will make you feel like the most solo, single-ist, absolutely lonely person on the planet. Other beaches are known for attracting party goers, that also attract solo travelers and make it easier to meet people.

Crete, for example, is a breathtaking environment for relaxation if you find the secluded beaches, but if you’re by yourself, it could be hard to go days on end without meeting people since remote locations with excellent beaches in Crete don’t attract solo travelers, but rather families and couples.

#2 Set Your Budget, Length of Time and Purpose of Your Trip

Write it down. Why are you going? How much time do you have? Do you have a weekend, a week, a month? Are you in a situation where you are going abroad for a long time after a breakup to start again?

Rome Italy

Choose your activities

If you are happy to sit in a cafe all day or wander than do that. If you feel it would be better to be around people choose some activities. Check Tripadvisor for ideas.

City adventures 

Are you looking for a ‘Weekend city’ break? Get to know a new city and its history, culture and people. Depending on which continent you live on, this would obviously vary. Try doing the opposite of your normal comfort zone. If you’re a city girl, try a trip to the mountains. If you’re

If you’re a city girl, try a trip to the mountains. If you’re from a small town, head to New York, London, Rome, Sydney, or Tokyo.  Try a few walking tours and see how a city evolved over the century. I like Sandeman’s walking tours. They are all over Europe and in some US cities, free, and have absolutely stellar guides. I always meet people and they learn a lot in the process. They typically offer other kinds of tours where you can go on a food tour, pub crawl, or walks around other points of interest.

They are all over Europe and in some US cities, free, and have absolutely stellar guides. I always meet people and they learn a lot in the process. They typically offer other kinds of tours where you can go on a food tour, pub crawl, or walks around other points of interest.

Sometimes a weekend away in a new city is the perfect refresher and a great way to explore a new place. Make a plan or don’t. Go sightseeing or wander around taking photos or sitting in cafes.

Beach vacation

Sometimes sitting at a beach reading and swimming all day is truly revitalizing. Sometimes, you just want to read a book in peace and sip a cold drink and not feeling pressured to do anything. Traveling alone makes this an ideal place to do that. There is nothing more cathartic than watching the waves and having hours on end alone with your thoughts and it’s a good time to get back to basics.

Falassarna Beach, Crete, Greece

Culture and Music:

Music is a wonderful way to experience a destination. Does the place you are going have any special cultural shows, music concerts or theater attractions? Portugal has Fado dancing, Spain has Flamenco, etc. etc. Maybe seeing a ballet or a musical would be a good activity to do alone.

Maybe tradition isn’t your thing and you would prefer a live rock show or maybe a jazz bar. There are plenty of activities to do so you don’t feel like you are alone in the evenings with nothing to do. Take yourself to dinner and a show. Most cities have different bars where you can watch live music of many genres.

#3 Where to Stay When You Travel Alone

Sometimes it’s good just to treat yourself and get your own view overlooking the Roman Forum in Rome, or Notre Dame in Paris. It’s great if you have the budget, but a hostel offers a social environment to meet like minded travelers and socialize a bit. Plus, you save money and typically the hostels offer evening activities.

I recommend finding a hostel that has a bar. Now before you assume I’m an alcoholic let me explain: hostel bars are great ways to meet people including the hostel bartenders. It’s a much better atmosphere for which to meet people and often times the hostels have drink specials as well. Plus, it’s easy to see who’s alone and many groups of travelers are quite welcoming to single travelers, especially women.

I’ve always found it easy to just ask people if they minded of I joined them.

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#4 Plan Where You’re Going to Stay Ahead of Time

It is possible to be completely spontaneous and just show up and look for accommodation once you arrive. There are several reasons why I advise booking ahead. If you’re female, safety should always be your first priority, so it’s good to research what area is safe for traveling alone and wandering out at night.

You want to make sure if you arrive Friday night at 10 pm that there is transportation there and you have somewhere to go directly. Carrying around luggage door to door or making phone calls from the station is an excellent way to waste a Friday evening.

Use sites like kayak.com, booking.com, or hostelbookers.com to check reviews and ability. They offer map features so you can see which area you will staying in.

Plus, it saves time and the trouble of wandering around or calling and wasting time trying to check availability. Lastly, if you’re on a budget you could arrive to find that everything is booked out but a very costly hostel room.

Arrival 

In general, as a solo female traveler, I don’t take flights that get me in after 11 pm unless it’s very easy for me to get from the airport to the center where my hostel is. Many train stations are a bit sketchy at night and I feel it’s better to avoid situations where you arrive late to an unknown city in a foreign land.

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It can be scary and you especially wouldn’t recommend it if it’s your first trip alone. Check online in advance whether there is transportation into town from the airport and if possible arrange it beforehand. Remember that if you opt for taxi, it will be expensive and you also could be waiting a long time as you battle with every other person with the same idea.

Most international airports have some sort of shuttle service or a train to the center so it’s a good idea to check beforehand. Some places even allow you to get a ticket online.

Money 

It’s a good To bring a combination of cash and ATM card beforehand and i usually take out around 50-100 euros once I arrive., airports are the absolutely worst places to change money or use the ATM and the exchange rate sucks.

So I usually get enough to pay my hostel and good food first few days then find a bank or money exchange the second day. If you arrive at night you should check to make sure that the money exchange is still open.

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#5 Write alone and keep in touch

Now here is some advice many people might not think of when they envision traveling alone. Communication and reflection. Even though getting out in your own traveling after a breakup can be a bit lonely, it doesn’t have to be.

These days it’s easy with WhatsApp or Wechat to keep in touch with people via text or audio message and those apps include free international calls. It makes dinner alone totally fine when you can have delicious local food and some wine while also chatting with friends back home.

Some people may criticize that approach but sometimes solitude is not the best solution for everyone. Take time for yourself but accept that you might need support from your friends or family at home. These days pretty much anywhere has wifi, so you don’t need to cut yourself off from the world.

One of the most important suggestions I have is the reflection part: write it down.

Keeping a written or online journal or keeping notes in your phone can help you gauge your emotional journey. But above all, remember healing takes time. But sometimes, we can mark our lives with small personal achievements that empower us.

Traveling alone can be the first one.

So there are my suggestions, hope they help. Comment below with your questions!

Do you feel this approach has been helpful to you? Is there anything you would add? 

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How I Overcame Body Shame and Learned to Love the Naked Sauna in Germany

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Let’s face it, in the US, we aren’t as comfortable with nudity as Europeans are.

Surprised embarrassed women in towel at spa

Americans love to judge naked bodies. Whether it’s being too critical in our own or wondering how someone else has the audacity to feel comfortable in theirs, we are watching and criticizing. If no one else is criticizing and judging our bodies, then you better believe we will be doing it to ourselves.

The mere word ‘nudity’ in the US gives off the idea of ‘nudist’, conjuring up images of naked beach communities of people who belong on the perimeters of normal society; perhaps they are BBQing, playing sports in the buff, with groups of hippie-like naturalists talking about super ‘nudist topics’ such as peace and love and perhaps Greenpeace saving the whales or joining marijuana communes. Naked and shameless. This is the American perception.

No, I’m not a nudist..

When I told my friends the first time I went to a German sauna and it was both naked and co-ed, the reaction was,”hm, funny, I never pictured you as a nudist.”

Let’s get into this, because I must explain. In Germany, spas are co-ed (men and women together), and you aren’t allowed to wear swimsuits. Nope. You can’t. Everyone is naked. And no one cares. This doesn’t make you a nudist. Nudist colonies in the US are places I personally find a bit creepy as it seems so forced to me, so deliberate.

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In Germany, it’s not on purpose per se, it just is the way it’s done. True, there is somehow a slight exhibitionist aura in the ladies locker rooms in Germany that I hadn’t encountered before, but it no longer seems as weird to me. I admit, though, it took me awhile to get used to women standing there buck-naked, drying their hair in front of the mirror either bent over  or just admiring their own physiques while they do their makeup and hair only in socks. And creaming every single millimeter of skin thoroughly. I thought to myself: does this need to be done naked? Wouldn’t a bra and undies be more suitable? Couldn’t the moisturizing be done as efficiently with underwear? Alas, it’s not my culture so there is no reason to analyze.

I have to say, hailing from a country in which everyone is in hysterics about the site of a bare breast used to feed an infant has really instilled a sense of prudishness when it comes to this topic. I never considered myself prude, but there is simply a sense of comfort people have with their bodies here that’s not typical in the US I feel.

Now you might think the idea of Germans being comfortable with nudity is counter-intuitive. No? Well, I do. It’s odd to me that a culture so invested in precision and punctuality and devout to perfection would have no problem being naked in public. In the US, this sort of compulsion could put you in a category of rigidity that would not welcome public nudity.

Here are some of the observations I find most interesting:

No half-assing. Germans take their saunas very seriously

Germans do not half-ass anything. Everything is 100 % or not at all. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that they would not engage in half-assed relaxation either. The first time I went to the Therme-Erding I was rather taken aback.

I guess I had been to several saunas in my life, but they were small and a bit cramped and the air was suffocating and dry. I have to admit I didn’t like it at all, so much so that I didn’t go for years. In Germany, it’s a whole other world. The German appreciation for ‘wellness’ is on a whole other level and deserves commendation I think.

Therme Erding, Germany: a whole new world

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Therme Erding, Germany

For those of you unfamiliar with the Therme Erding, it’s outside of Munich in Germany’s southern region of Bavaria, and one of the biggest spas and the closest thing you will find to indoor tropical paradise in Europe. There are several sections, a family waterslide park, and the adult sauna and spa area. There are something like 10 different saunas and they are all distinct. They all have themes such as ‘meditation sauna,’ ‘citrus sauna’ ‘bread sauna’-yes, really. What is interesting to me is that they have scheduled sessions for the saunas, called ‘Aufguss,’ each with its own host.

You enter the sauna, usually with 20-30 other people. You find a spot, and put down your towel to claim your spot. If you are on the bottom row, be prepared to have dangling body parts and sweaty legs stepping over you to reach the ‘upper deck’ where the real fire power is. If you are up at the top, you will be blasted continually with the hottest air coming from the furnace.

The sauna host comes in, welcomes you, and tells you how long the session will be and that you can leave if you get too hot. He or she will also let you know what sort of herbs, fragrances, or branches will be put into the sauna furnace. This is the cool part. Each sauna theme gets its own fragrance. There are citrus, eucalyptus, beer (yep, seriously), rose, lemon grass,  or others.

The session is usually 10-15 minutes with 2-3 rounds. Each round, water is poured onto the coals. The host has a variety of ‘fanning instruments,’ which he or she will use to properly circulate the air inside the sauna. Sometimes it’s just a big towel, sometimes little brooms, sometimes a huge flag made of canvas, but either way, you get blasted every few minutes with the hot, aromatic air. It’s pretty satisfying actually and they even have music to accompany it sometimes.

The Therme Erding is special, though, and the hosts take their jobs very seriously. On several occasions, I could barely hold my laughter in as several women emotionally twirled around the sauna with towels to music, without even the faintest smiles on their faces. Apparently, they didn’t think they looked funny fanning the air like sauna pixies to the classical music playing in the background..

Once the sauna is over, you can go to the shower area for either a regular shower, or you may opt to douse yourself head-on with a bucket of the coldest, shock-inducing ice water ever. After that, you can swim in the main warm pool area, with a swim-up bar where you can order beers and cocktails. I have to say, there is something pretty awesome about a swim up bar where you are liberated from everything by a beer and your own nakedness. There are restaurants surrounding the pool and very good food once you’ve worked up an appetite.

Stop obsessing. Be ‘German-comfortable’ in your body

Like many women around the world, I also battled with my sense of self and my body image for a long time. And being in ballet didn’t help. I remember being totally traumatized in middle school having to shower in the same room with others and having to change. In the US, girls are constantly trying to look attractive (because God forbid you don’t try) versus looking like you tried too hard or look too revealing. I find it exhausting. Everyone in the US is so caught up with being body shamed, or too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, too much cellulite, too much arm flab, and on and on and on and on..

German women are just ok with themselves. They aren’t obsessing and no one even looks at each other’s bodies at all. There are all sizes and shapes and colors of people and it’s all fine. And no one cares. After years of American fashion magazines and hating my body as a teenager, I find Germany totally refreshing!

If you happen to be in the Munich area, I highly recommend this place. It really was a revelation to me and I’m glad I went.. Sometimes, it takes being naked in another culture to really feel comfortable in your own skin!

Did you know you’ve been bathing wrong your whole life?

Once you have been in the public shower with Germans, you will realize you have been sloppily bathing your whole life. Never have I seen such dedication to bathing. There is not one cm of skin unscrubbed, one hair un-lathered and not one area undried and appropriately moisturized with skin cream. I never considered myself to be a sloppy shower’er, but man, I am now convinced. I think this must explain why German, women in particular have radiant skin-they moisturize the heck out of it. Good tip!

New Year’s Cologne Station Sexual Assaults and Germany’s Rising Refugee Tension- my expat perspective

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***Since the recent New Years sexual attacks at the Köln Hauptbahnhof (Cologne Main Station), Germany has been seething in anger and confusion. The story has only now cautiously made its way into the main German media such as Spiegel and Deutsche Welle . **

How did women get sexually assaulted by 1,000 Arab and North African men on New Year’s in Cologne, Germany? 

For anyone catching up, 1,000 Arab and North African men (presumably refugees) circled and trapped around 90 German women at the Köln Main Station on New Year’s Eve 2016 and tore their clothes, sexually assaulted and threatened them. Some of the girls have come forward to the authorities and it’s not easy to figure out how everyone feels, and as usual, the loudest voice is usually the most bigoted and racist one and German authorities are calling on everyone to remain calm without blaming the refugees. On the other hand, there is a vocally defensive German left wing that defends the refugees in every situation no matter what happens in the news, citing Syria and the West’s bungled attempts to remove Assad as justification for why they do have a right to be here. They point out that a few bad apples do not represent the entire refugee community, and refugees do not, therefore, deserve the ire of the German public since Germans cause more crime overall. There is way too much hatred and misunderstanding and I wanted to clarify the environment as I see it now.

Why does anyone care what I think if I’m an expat here in Germany?

Maybe you don’t. You don’t have to. But everyone is having a hard time understanding all the tempers and passion that have flared in Germany the last few days. As a foreigner who has lived in Germany the last three years, I feel I can shed some light on the subject from a possibly more objective position because it’s not my country. I should also point out that I have friends of all nationalities, religions, and colors of the racial and LGBT rainbow, so before anyone accuses me of anything, I am not against Germans, Muslims, or Syrians. From the beginning, I supported helping Syrian refugees and was also brought to tears by the horrific story of

From the beginning, I supported helping Syrian refugees and was also brought to tears by the horrific story of Aylan Kurdi, whose little body perished on the shores of Turkey while trying to make it to safety. At the time, I supported helping the Syrian war refugees and still do. The fact is, this complicated situation has many facets, and not enough of them are being considered or addressed at all in the media. It seems to be presented as: Racist Germans or Welcoming Germans. It is absolutely not that simple. I will try to explain what is happening here from my point of view as objectively as possible.

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Syrian Refugees (Wikipedia)

Where are the rational arguments or middle ground?

What I feel is missing is constructive dialogue on the refugee crisis from somewhere in the middle. While there undoubtedly is a middle voice, the presentation of their bombastic arguments unfortunately have not always sounded any more rational to the rest of the world (or me) than the right wing zealots, so they have also been unfairly lumped in with the Nazi racists calling for mass deportation, citing Hitler, and burning refugee tents in Dresden and other cities.

Germany’s right wing has been brewing in the last few years from the far-right anti-Islam PEGIDA Party that started in Dresden and spread to the rest of Germany. They have been vocal about their hatred towards immigrants in general, mostly against the Turkish people who have lived in Germany for decades, yet retain their Turkish cultural identity through their religion and customs. When this group emerged, I simply couldn’t believe that the exact same dangerous rhetoric used against the Jews was happening again targeting the Turkish people. I wondered, did Germany not learn anything from its past? Dresden was divided in an horrible, ugly way. In fact, they had, and thousands of Germans all over Germany protested against them in Munich, Hamburg, Köln (Cologne), and Berlin. Tens of thousands of Germans decided that they would not stand for those kinds of hateful assertions against foreigners.

So what has happened since the refugees started coming into Germany during the summer?

It’s important to note that this situation did not start on New Year’s Eve 2016; it started the day the refugees started to arrive on the trains from Hungary, crossing through Austria and into Germany. The news was that Germany, or ‘Mama Merkel’, was going to extend a helping hand to the millions of Syrian refugees that were risking their lives to get to Europe. The environment seemed overwhelmingly positive at the time, videos circulated on international news and photos of happy, helpful, smiling Germans made their way into Facebook and Twitter Feeds. The world (and I) perhaps felt a real sense that this was so important to Germany because it was finally a chance for them to redeem themselves from the atrocities of their war past.

How German historical shame might have factored into their support

Germans have not forgotten for a single day that the Holocaust happened, and it is a national shame, so much so, that until the World Cup in 2006 in Germany, it was not a standard procedure to even hang a German flag outside the front door or wave it at a football game. For me, this was genuinely impressive to see how the people of Munich marched down to the Hauptbahnhof (main station) to offer food, clothing, bottles of water – so much so, that the local authorities actually had to ask people to stop. I was deeply touched by their generosity.Germany was helping Syria refugees, and they were happy. The world was happy too. Everyone sensed a feeling of accomplishment and genuine humanity. Germans seemed so happy to give something and be considered compassionate and contributing to the salvation of a people instead being blamed for their horrible demise. The media covered it at every corner and relished in reporting the warm hearts of the German populace.

However, in Germany, the racists screamed obscenities and marched; they infiltrated refugee camps to abuse the inhabitants there.  They were drowned out by refugee defenders who cited Hitler’s atrocities as the reason to never again let such xenophobia control the German people. But another middle group was not cheering- they were cautious and not vocal about helping refugees at all. They were worried about the mass entrance that would happen and the practical logistics of what this would mean. They were against the legalities of it and the disorder of it all. They all screamed so loudly regarding procedure and against Merkel but no one listened to them, because to some, their arguments lacked compassion, so any legal frameworks or talks of immigration control sounded too much like the far right for their expulsion. No one said, ‘ Let’s decide which refugees to let in and how to responsibly do it.

And none of their concerns were answered. Questions, that are now, widely legitimate and could have prevented the current catastrophe.

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European Refugee Crisis (Wikipedia)

So what actually happened as the floodgates were opened?

“We don’t know who’s coming, who they are, we’re not registering them properly, it’s chaos. We can’t do this. Where are the people going to stay? Are we going to confiscate private households? What are we going to do?”  –a German parliamentarian.

What was actually happening, unbeknownst to most people, was that everyone came in on the train. There were no background screenings, no checks that anyone was actually from Syria, no assurances of who was coming in, no counting of how many, no deciding what the ratio of women and children to men should be. And they came. Perhaps because it was easier for them to survive the journey, the majority were men.

Unfortunately, this resulted not only saving Syrian families and children, but also letting in any male between the ages of 20-40 years old from anywhere in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. These men could have been anyone. And herein lies the problem when it comes to national security. Bear with me- before you assume I’m sounding like a spokesperson for the White House.

The problem is that Germany’s asylum application (like every government bureaucratic process), is filled with red tape and takes weeks or long months just to be registered then the application process begins. No one considered what these refugees would do in the camps for 6-8 months without work, school, or anything to do. They would be anonymous. Who were they?  And therein lies the problem.

What were the consequences of taking any refugee?

I do not know nor proclaim to have the perfect criteria for who should get asylum and who should be sent back. I am for helping families with children, so how are they not the obvious majority? Who should decide if a young man should not be allowed in and his future dismantled? I don’t know. But I do know that the consequences have been dire and could worsen, and they all led up to the events on New Years 2016. The men in the refugee camps are from all different Muslim countries and different Sunni and Shia factions. This has led to catastrophic fights on a regular basis according to police as well as raping and sexual assault of the women and children who are sleeping there. The volunteers have reportedly been attacked as well, and the streets around the refugee camps are not considered safe.

These events have been reported but rarely published but rumors have swept every community and enraged many Germans who feel accepting the refugees was a sacrifice that does not warrant them coming to Germany and behaving in this way. Germany is one of the safest countries in Europe, or was up until this point, and most Germans understandably feel incredibly threatened by these kinds of sexual assaults on German women.

What is the middle ground?

In my opinion, the problem is not the refugees, but the KIND of refugee being let in. Too often the general word, ‘refugees’ is used here on both the left and right and is erroneously applied to everyone. It does not distinguish pain versus savagery. All these people who were against the idea from the beginning from a logistical perspective are now saying, ‘SEE? We told you this would happen.’ They are accused of racism by the left for pointing this out. However, their assertions are completely removed from any humanity or compassion about why Syrian refugees were rescued in the first place and I feel that this is the reason that ‘rational’ and non-racist Germans can’t understand how they are being accused of racism. There still is and absolutely was a need to save people from Syria, whose livelihoods were taken from them, their homes destroyed, their lives shattered.

How on earth was there no plan?

What country would allow in nearly a million people without some sort of screening? Germany is one of the most cautious, reasonable and responsibly organized countries I have ever lived in. And yet, this was all done overnight, without any precautions. None. This is the most un-German way it could have been handled, and Germans for the most part, cannot accept it for this reason. Germans are known for precision, their responsible caution, their determination for process and order. Of course, Syrian families deserve a chance, but that doesn’t mean for them that anyone can jump on the bandwagon. In a year when the world is terrified of ISIS and Muslim extremists, why would so many young men be allowed into a safe and thoroughly protected Western European country without a simple background check and immediate registration?

Where were the selective border patrols?

Sure, border patrols would have needed to also be set up overnight and thousands of extra immigration officials deployed for such a huge endeavor. Registration would have taken days, but Germans authorities would have been able to get it done. And would have. Because that’s how everyone in Germany believes it should have been done. No lives would have been lost while waiting at the border for registration. Many Germans are now terrified of ISIS and the ideas that extremist factions have been unknowingly let into their country and are being allowed to simply vanish into the night- because no one counted them.

 Middle Ground- where are you?

From my point of view, this middle ground that exists is not racist but is provoking the wrong questions. They have too many rightful questions but the wrong presentation and not enough solutions besides kicking out Merkel. This is not understood nor by foreigners abroad or by the foreign media. Everyone sees the situation is suddenly dire, but the only outcries coming out of the country that they heard were not of legitimate legal discrepancies, but of racial hatred.

Given Germany’s past- no one wants to hear those arguments against a group of ‘outsiders’ no matter how good their intentions are. It may seem unfair but perhaps the German public does need to find a more constructive way to articulate themselves. There are enough reasonable people with good judgment and compassion, they just need to come together instead of blaming each other. They are one of the most educated and professional societies I have ever lived among. So, the issue should be – what are they going to do now?  

I don’t know what the solution is, but this is not it. I firmly feel the German government is capable of anything. Germany owes its citizens and the refugees already here the protection from violent extremists or predatory males. Governments change with the flow of social opinion, and the German public from the middle must also be more articulate and vocal in a constructive way both within Germany and with the rest of the world.

 

**What do you think? What is the solution in Germany?

Feel free to comment. 🙂 

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Loved One Dead & You’re a Million Miles Away. When expat life breaks your heart.

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I hadn’t seen Craig in 20 years since I left Minnesota..

My friend Craig from high school had epilepsy his whole life. With medication, his seizures were infrequent, but every few years. One day, at 38 years of age, Craig had one final seizure he couldn’t recover from. He passed away one night in Minnesota, a million miles away from me, leaving his wife and two children alone.

Crying woman who suffered loss

Crying woman.

Facebook is blessing & a curse 

This wasn’t the first time, it pains me to say. This was another death from someone I hadn’t spoken to in years. Somehow though- I never expected him to die..

I was in Germany and like so many gut wrenching times before, I received a Facebook message from an old friend. We all knew Craig would one day lose the battle – once he had a seizure while driving and I was in the back seat. I wanted to find photos of him. Since he was not on Facebook and our friend Kristin was the only one running around with a camera in the 90s photographing all our hangouts at her house, I went to her Facebook page to see if she had some old photos in her albums. I became grippingly overwhelmed by photos of candles, and messages of love and remembrance, saying ‘RIP Kristin’. I froze, and then, I broke down. Somehow, I had managed to not be aware of her death for nearly a year. This time, no one had written me. And her death was not in my

When you’re a million miles away..

Living abroad and travel is my life. It’s my world and I created it for myself. I love and appreciate every single experience I’ve had. I cherish every moment, and I try to overcome every challenge.

No matter what, the worst and most sobering aspect of being an expat is losing a loved one while you live abroad. And you are a million miles away. And there is nothing you can do. Your friends and family go to the funeral, and many times, you can’t be there.

 No one discusses death in expat life

It’s a wonderous life. People talk about ‘traveling the world’ and delve into the romantics of what it’s like to relinquish their old lives, live out of a suitcase, away from everything and pursue a dream, pursue freedom, independence, and passion. But no one prepares you for losing someone from home. This is an unfortunate reality of expat life that no one tells you about. It’s a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness I cannot describe.

This is not to deter you at all from living abroad. It’s a fulfilling, rewarding, life filled with excitement, self-discovery, and purpose.

Over the course of my ten years living abroad, and twenty years traveling and studying off and on, I have lost many friends and loved ones. This wasn’t my fault, not something I planned on or could have anticipated. Who would? Many might say (including certain family members) that I left for somewhat selfish reasons, because I needed to find something else. Somewhere else. What I wanted was not in the US, something new and deliberate. And so I left.

But there is nothing harder than losing a friend or family member while living abroad. All those feelings of self-determination sort of evaporate and seem to expose you at a deep family level for pursuing what many will consider selfish dreams.

My grandfather died while I was in China. It wasn’t really unexpected, he was 83, but my family didn’t tell me for two days. When you are far away, news travels slowly, and because you aren’t present geographically, people try to find the ‘right time’ to tell you.

Death in the time of Facebook

Some people my age who passed away I wasn’t as surprised about, since they were people who perhaps didn’t take care of their health or I saw them going down a destructive path.

Some I hadn’t seen in years but got word of their death via Facebook. Kristin passed away quietly from breast cancer and I hadn’t even talked to in about a year. Somehow, all the activity surrounding her death didn’t ‘appear’ in my news feed. I found out she was dead via my other friend’s page.

No one wants to talk about death on Facebook. In fact, many people consider it bad taste to post anything about the loss of a friend on Facebook. When you live a million miles away from old friends, no one knows to contact you. You just see their name tagged in your newsfeed. And you mourn alone.

To be honest – you feel selfish

Not many things make you feel like you are selfish than leaving your country. In every sense, it was for my own happiness. I simply wasn’t fulfilled and my family was happy that I found happiness in exploring other places alone. I will never say I lived an unlived life, or should have done more things for myself or taken risks. I have grown so much over the years and battled with myself, struggled in other cultures, with a sense of instability and loss. But that loss is not comparable to losing a friend or loved one. That struggle is real and unavoidable.

I never expected two friends to have heart attacks at 35 and 37. I never expected her to O.D. at 30. Never thought she would jump off a building at 41. Or he would choke in his sleep at 29. Or that breast cancer would kill her at 35. Or that he would crash his motorcycle. Fact is – people are not around forever and there is nothing you can do about it.

Goodbye quote

I don’t know what the solution is- you can’t wait around for people to die either. That is not living. You can’t fear living because you might lose someone close to you. In many ways, that pain has made me more grateful for the loved ones in my life and more vocal about my feelings. You really never know when or if you will see people again.

The point is – everyone dies. It might be you, it might be a loved one. It might be an old friend or lover. You can’t prevent that. But you can love them while they are here and be grateful for the days and time that you have. Because you never know what life will bring.

 

Looking Through the Wrinkly Eyes of a Chinese Old Person

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Chinese old people fascinate me. In general, I have to admit that living to be 80 or 90 in this day an age impresses me anyway both in and out of China. These days, it seems everything is laden with some cancer causing additive or a by-product that will result in genetic mutations in your offspring, causing the healthiest of woman to give birth to a scaled albino fish with fur. Despite all these possible calamities, it’s not necessarily the fact that Chinese “Lao Ren” (Old people) have survived all this, but it’s the amount that they have seen in the last 75 years or so in China during their life time. The eyes hold many a story, but there is something remarkable to me about Chinese elderly who have lived in big cities in China and seen this transformation first hand.

Old Chinese Man
Photo: Andrea Hunt

Even being from the States, I can remember only 12 years ago when I finished high school that I did not have a cell phone, no one did. Now I can hardly imagine what I used to do when I couldn’t tell people I was stuck in traffic and would be late. What did I listen to as I walked around before my Ipod? I hardly remember a time when I used to write real letters to people; as wonderful as they are to have, I can hardly be bothered to get to the post office these days. Really, how did I manage without email or *gasp, Google?

Traveling around China, I came to notice a pattern in my photography. Even at all the historical sites I went to for which I traveled hundreds of miles to see, I seemed to have been more captivated by China’s old people than any Tang Dynasty architecture or relic. Every picture would be an old woman leaning against a temple, an old couple with their canes helping each other down a step, an old man resting against a tree. I find that what interests me most is the expression they don on their beautifully crevassed and wrinkled faces; it seems to me there is something unique about China geriatrics. There is a sparkly yet squinty look of extreme experience that I can liken to elderly in other places, but a child like wonder and a peace that they possess that fascinates me. The rippled brows with years and years of thinking overshadow these magical eyes that hold a genuine curiosity for their surroundings. They don’t mind just sitting along the road on their little stools, watching the day go by, or strolling along with no particular destination in mind. This curiosity they possess is most evident in small towns, where to this day, a TV can be on and facing outward through the dusty window of a small shop and 50 people will crowd around in the cold to watch China’s national television stations, CCTV.

Old Chinese Man
Photo: Andrea Hunt

If you think about it, the last 75 years in China has been a bit of a whirlwind. But unlike other countries where technology came in stages, here it was light years quicker in terms of transitions. I watched in the park the other day as an elderly lady perched atop a small wooden stool in a puffy blue shirt with a traditional qi po collar sent an SMS to someone. Suddenly, I started to think of all the technology now available in China and how shocking this all must be for the older generation who saw years with little technological advancement at all. Then, within a staggeringly short amount of time suddenly out of nowhere the internet, mobile phones, and digital appeared all at once as China came to be the manufacturer of these products and huge companies like China Mobile became one of the top 5 most valuable companies worldwide. Deng Xiao Ping’s dreams in 1978 of having a socialist market economy roared into fruition in only a generation and produced a society that went from near economic extinction and mass starvation to a country with the third largest economy… and they witnessed it all..

To read the continuation of Through the Wrinkly Old Eyes of a Chinese Old Person stay tuned for Part Two coming up soon.

***

China Explorer> Airport Security Fun
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The ramifications of this are extraordinary if you think about it, especially in terms of technology. From being in a country where hardly anyone owned a camera, to a country where everyone, including the cleaning lady and custodian, has a camera phone is unimaginable. This all must be inconceivable to these “Lao Ren,” given that in all honesty, the last fifty years in China’s history have proved to be the most economically, socially, and politically tumultuous. You don’t really see the hardship that many of these Chinese people endured as they slowly pitter around the lake in their Chairman Mao clothes and wrinkled eyes.

Chinese Old Man
Photo: Andrea Hunt

I love China’s parks in the morning and watching the “old people jungle gyms” on the side of the streets. The patience and serenity they exude as they do their Tai Chi always calms me, as does their coordination and balancing exercises they do, like balancing a tennis ball in long graceful movements on the stiff threads of a tennis racket. The “Lao Ren Jungle gyms” can entertain me for hours, simply because in the cold early morning hours you can see little Chinese old people suspended in air swishing their legs on stretch-inducing walking stirrups. Just like old people everywhere, they are so unambiguous in their beliefs and traditions that the mere idea of an old lady sending an SMS to meet up with her friends for a game of Majiang later is both extraordinary and surreal. Yet there they sit in the city’s most crowded busses staring at the LCD screen show the news or a show during peak rush hour.

Through eyes that have seen everything from war and famine to the televised event of the first Chinese man in space in 2003 or Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, their charming innocence has an almost childlike quality that always impresses me. One particular day, I was on a visit to the famous Summer Palace in Beijing and it was only a few days into January, the coldest time of the year. Regardless of my poor choice of timing to visit one of Beijing’s most spectacular scenic spots, the lake was beautifully frozen over solid and the trees were white with a light fleecy snow. Signs everywhere prominently reminded people in both English and Chinese not to venture out on the ice. I can’t imagine that in the USA old people would want to go out onto the ice, yet here in China, despite surely seeing countless snowfalls, the old people simply ignored the signs along with everyone else and trudged down the icy, snowy steps to reach the frozen lake shore.

Now anyone who knows most American old people realizes that this would not happen in America for several reasons. Firstly, old people in America would not disobey the sign, secondly, they would most likely fear breaking a hip or shattering their tailbone on the ice. Thirdly, they wouldn’t’ probably be outside in the freezing cold on their own without someone keeping them from crazy ideas like walking out onto a frozen lake with ill equipped footgear. Despite the irrationality of this feat, I respect its daring adventure.

Old Chinese Man
Photo: Andrea Hunt

All in all, the Chinese old people have a calmness in their eyes that I hope that I have by the time I am that age. I have seen so many embittered old people, especially in the USA. I love how in China they sit around a fold-up table huddled outdoors because they believe the air is fresh and good for them. I think it’s interesting how they believe every food has a quality, and a time, and a place for eating it. I like how in the small towns, their eyes fill with a curious wonder when they see a foreigner walk by. If you greet them with a simple “Ni Hao,” they are shocked and marvel at your two words of Chinese. The lesson to be learned here is this: you can get old and have seen it all, but never lose your sense of innocence and wonder. I hope that even after I am old and gray, that I can manage to see things wide-eyed, as would a child in the same situation.

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China Explorer> Lost in Face?
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Remember the BCD (Bad China Day)? Get ready for TIC: This is China

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Remember the BCD? Get ready for TIC: This is China

If you remember our last article on the Bad China Day you will recall that in addition to the BCD, there is also TIC. This is a phrase that I have heard widely with foreigners in China and therefore, I have no idea who to credit for this ingenious phrase. TIC stands for “This is China.” This is the phrase you use when no other rational explanation can be found from a Western standpoint. The only condolence your confused Western head has is that you are in China, and normal logic in a given situation need not apply to you, Sir or Madam Laowai.

If you can start the sentence with the words, “You would think… (dot.dot.dot), then this is the appropriate expression to use! TIC is normal, for you are here in China! Because this is different from anything we knew before and were used to, we must just accept that sometimes we are out of our mental and physical capacity to understand. Why? This is China.

confused face
Photo: po go re lo va

TIC. This usually happens at random moments, and sometimes is largely incorporated into the BCD – Bad China Day. Sometimes these occurrences cause frustration and other times they are simply baffling but do not warrant anger.

Sometimes they occur where there are rules everywhere that can’t be bent because there exists an inflexible procedure; sometimes we want to go around the rules if it makes more sense another way. Let’s start with the bank. Let’s say you walk into the bank in the middle of the afternoon to put money on your electricity card. This is the same bank you use to pay your electricity every single month. There are no other customers there and so you walk up to one of the three available people at the counter to pay your electricity only before barely being tackled by a nicely dressed woman who insists that you pick a number. You are a bit taken aback and look around to confirm that you are, indeed, the only customer there so you don’t really see the point of taking the number but walk over to the machine and get your number-1204. You stand there blinking and annoyed as the numbers above the tellers change. 6451, 6452. No one comes. 1202,1203. Nothing.1204-Finally, your number is called and you go up to the desk. You understand full well that order in the bank necessitates a number but seeing as how you are the only one that seemed a bit pointless. You walk up to the lady and tell her that you would like to add money to your card only to be told that you can’t. You ask a series of questions and can only confirm that no, today you can’t do it at that bank; you must walk down the street to the post office to pay. TIC.

confused face
Photo: {dpade1337}

A friend of mine crashed his motorbike in Thailand and needed me to wire 600 RMB to him so I elected to use my lunch hour to go to the Western Union in the China Post Office. I pulled out my 600 RMB and told the lady the routing number of the Western Union in Bangkok. She told me that they didn’t take RMB, only US Dollars. I was confused.

”But can’t you change the money into Dollars when you wire it by using the exchange rate?” I inquired.

”No,” she said, “You must change the money first.”

”Fine, where can I change it?” I asked.

I was told that the only place around here that would change RMB to US Dollars was Bank of China, which was not nearby.

I pondered a moment, “Wait! I have my US Visa Bank Card! Can I use that to wire the money? That way the money coming out of the account is directly in US Dollars.”

“No, they must be actual US Dollars in order to wire it,” she said flatly.

“But you are not wiring actual paper money, it’s a wire transfer! Why can’t you take it off the card and wire it? You are Western Union!”

I finally gave up. TIC.

Usually at Chinese restaurants in small towns you will find it virtually impossible to find cold beer unless you ask them to put it in the meat fridge for you and you plan on hanging out for a few hours. On several occasions, we went to some restaurants and asked for several beers.

We were asked, “Do you want cold beer or warm beer?”

We replied excitedly at the prospect of actual cold beer in the middle of December, “Yes! Bring 3 please!””We don’t have cold beer here,” was her reply.

We thought out loud to ourselves, “Interesting. But, if you don’t have any cold beer then why did you ask if we wanted it cold?”

I turned and looked around, “But what about that beer that is in the refrigerator over there?”

“No, it’s not plugged in,” she replied coyly as if that was the dumbest thing she had ever heard.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. ”Not plugged in? Of course. Why would it be? Right…warm beer would be fine.” TIC

confused face
Photo: lanuiop

One weekend trip while hanging out in beautiful Suzhou for a few days a few of us who were living in small Chinese cities at the time were craving some Western Food. We walked past what appeared to be an Irish pub, usually a safe bet worldwide when it comes to a hearty meal and good beer selection. We went in the bar to inspect and to check out the menu.

“Burgers!” my friend squealed.

“Hey, do you also have cheese? Can you make a cheeseburger?” I asked.

“Oh yes, of course you can order a cheeseburger here!” the lady beamed.

So we ordered one cheeseburger and one hamburger and went to sit down. What seemed like an eternity later she joyfully skipped over and put the plate before me. I leaned over and looked. What lay before me was a toasted hamburger bun with a large piece of lettuce and a piece of American wrapper cheese. It looked very thin. I picked up the top bun and peered over the “burger.” As I suspected, there was a slightly wet, yet crispy piece of iceberg lettuce and a square piece of cheese.

I looked up at her blankly and asked innocently,” Um. Where is the hamburger?” (Remember TIC: Things are not always what they seem. This is China; they could be bringing it separately for all I know).

“You order cheeseburger,” she chirps.

Blink, blink….”Yes, so where is the cheeseburger?”

She gestures towards the toasted bun. “That’s cheeseburger,” she says.

“But, where is the meat?” I challenged, wrinkling my brow.

“You mean the beef?” she asks, totally confused.

Now I was puzzled beyond words. “Yes! Where’s the beef?” I asked, with memories of that 80s commercial in my head. Now I was fully expecting her to suddenly chant, “It’s in your teeth!”

She put her hands on her hips, “OH! You want a beef cheeseburger, why you not say?”

I choked a little. “Yes! A beef cheeseburger!” (?!?!!!)

“Ah OK! I ask them make the beef cheeseburger for you!” and she ran to the kitchen and brought back a barely masticable piece of steak to put in the bun. TIC.

Admittedly, sometimes the strangest of situations are truly hilarious because at times we really don’t understand the thinking that is behind the action. After awhile the stranger things seem more commonplace and you wonder why certain things seemed odd to you when you first got here. I’m sure there are 5 million strange things about any of our countries; it’s the nature of living in a different country. There are always going to be customs or situations that you just can’t understand. There have been many questioned asked about the US for which I honestly have no rational answer-I can only reply, “I have no idea, that’s just the way it is.” So when in China, remember when you can start the sentence with “You would think that…” remember, TIC.

***

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Why Expat Life Creates the Best Friendships that are Hardest to Leave Behind..

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What if you could meet the best friends you had ever met in your life? But what if they were only there for awhile?

I remember during the Olympics in 2008, around the months of May and June people slowly started to leave Beijing. Since the visas weren’t getting extended past July 1, literally three fourths of my friends had to leave. It seemed like during the week there were at least 3 going away dinner parties and then on weekends there were another 3-5.

Expats in Beijing at Bird Nest Stadium during Olympics 2008

Some friends and I at the Bird’s Nest Stadium Beijing

It seemed like every new amazing person that I met that year would be mercilessly removed from my vicinity one after one. But it wasn’t just for the Olympics; everyone that lives in China for a while can tell you that it happens every few months. After living in China in one spot for a while, you learn how many people you can truly connect with in such a short while, the whole time knowing that you won’t know them very long.

Each six month period brings wonderful people, friends to teach you something in life, people you instantly become close with or even people who could have been more if you had gotten the time to find out. But no one stays here forever; all these people usually leave. Thus starts the ‘cycle of friends’ in China all over again.

Eventually, maybe we ended up getting to a point when we stop wondering what we are still doing here in China. After a few years, maybe we’ve even forgotten what brought us to China in the first place. For some, we were bored in the same environment we had always known and needed to break away, others had a sudden panic that our lives were ordinary and we needed a drastic change immediately to evade stagnation.

How did we get here to China anyway?

Or, like what seems to be a large majority, those who came out of relationships with an imperative willingness to change our whole lives and our surroundings in an attempt to escape or find something new in a China far, far away. Sometimes it’s this crazy and irrational impulse that can lead us to new horizons. Unfortunately, we set out on these irrational impulses alone. This is undoubtedly because most sane people are not willing to pick up their lives and move to China when offered a job with 2 weeks notice.

Suddenly, we found ourselves in this strange land, with no one familiar, having left behind years of ties of friendship as well as our family blood. Moving to a new town in your own country is hard enough, but moving overseas to another country, especially one with culture and language so distinct, is daunting; some may even say absurd. So we create our own little communities and “families” here, and meet people with whom we had no idea we had anything in common. It’s odd how much you can connect with people from all different backgrounds from all over the world and grow surprisingly close in such a short period of time.

Chinese man in Beijing alone in Hutong

Things move faster in China, in general. Life, the traffic, the days, the weekends, the construction, it’s all in constant transformation. Here, one day a building could be a gym or a restaurant, the next day it’s a barbershop. At home, relationships take years to form sometimes or at least many months at a time. Here, it seems like there is an “on” and “off” switch that either clicks or doesn’t with the right people. You can travel with people for only one month of your life and find you feel much closer to that person than you have in years.

Usually in China, you go alone, with only your own explanations of who you are. In some ways, it is nice to be able to start fresh where no one knows you. Everyone is able to leave out unpleasant phases in their lives that ended up forming who they are today. Your presentation of yourself is more of a finished product because no one is familiar with how you grew up and what experiences formed you. The unfortunate aspect is that no one knows anything about your past and you constantly have to take little steps to open yourself up and explain how you arrived at this point. Everyone has stories, but in China, people’s pasts always seem more surprising for some reason.

As I said before, regardless of these short periods of time, the circumstances under which you meet people in China create some of the strongest friendships and close feelings for people you never even knew existed in the universe six months ago. The loyalties of these friendships and common understanding can be really incredible when you think about how different your lives are back in your own countries. In a way though, I think quality over quantity is always the better option, although it makes it sad in a way. Most of these people you do end up keeping in touch with over the years, but hardly ever see again. Most people tend to settle when they go back home, while here they try to keep things as lively and unsettled as possible. People who live in China joke that monotony in China is almost unacceptable and definitely not OK. This is why you tend to meet exciting and interesting people who relish uncertainty on a day-to-day basis and come to expect the unexpected.

In the end, last hugs and tears do not negate that having met these people for such a short period of time is worth the loss of not having them physically present in China anymore. People still make a difference and still leave an imprint on your life. For all the people past, present, and future, we hold a bond in China that will not change only because we aren’t in the same place. As Tennessee Williams notes, “Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose.”

***

Related Links

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2 Minnesotans, a Saudi, an Israeli and a Mexican: it’s not a joke, it’s an afterparty

Aside

7 Smart Tips for Your First time at Munich Oktoberfest!

It’s that time of year again, and Munich’s famed two week celebration of beer guzzling, dirndl and lederhosen wearing, table-singing-and-dancing tradition of Oktoberfest has finally come to a close! Get ready to start planning for 2016!

Oktoberfest can be downright confusing for the reported 6 million yearly visitors, annoying and exasperating for the locals, and a logistical headache for transportation and city officials. Have no fear, I’m here to help!

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For those planning to come to Oktoberfest 2016, where do you start?

Where do you sleep? How do you get a table?

 Is there any way to do Oktoberfest cheaply?

I have put together a list to help you for next time to save you some time, money, and headaches.

7) What dates to go:

This is a tricky one, since the biggest day is of course, opening day, but also the busiest. If you arrive the day before along with everyone else, tickets will be crazy expensive and there most likely won’t be anywhere to sleep. I would recommend coming a few days before, or trying to go more towards the end and staying a few days after. There really is a huge rush of people and you don’t want to arrive the day before or leave the day after. The last day is usually the best, in my opinion, because you can actually walk into most of the tents and get a place.

Contrary to the name, Oktoberfest starts many times the last week of September and does not go through the whole month of October. Keep this in mind when planning so you don’t arrive to a quiet, tranquil Munich, having missed Oktoberfest by 2 weeks. Check here for dates.

True story: Yes, someone once actually told me they were going end of October.

6) Airline Tickets: 

As you would expect, airline ticket prices shoot up during that time, so booking in advance is highly recommended. If you are coming from the US, Kayak or CheapoAir are two I use when I am going back home to the US.

Keep in mind of where Munich is geographically in the vicinity (4-6 hours bus/train) of Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, France, and Croatia.

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See if you can fly into another city first and bus into Munich since there are excellent bus and train connections.

Try Vienna, Austria; Venice, Italy; Prague, Czech Republic; Zagreb, Croatia; Ljubjana, Slovenia.

A side note: Berlin is NOT near Munich, so it won’t help much if you get a cheaper flight there first, although Berlin is certainly a bigger hub with better connections. It’s a 6 hour train ride (usually around 60-80 euros one way) or a 7.5 hour bus ride (around 20-30 euros one way). It will take you roughly a day to get there.

(You may laugh, but you have no idea how many people arrive to Berlin and call me, telling me I should come up..)

5) What to bring with you the day you decide to go to Oktoberfest

As for the tents themselves, Oktoberfest has a remarkable amount of items left in the lost and found, so much so, that a regularly published list is updated on a daily basis in Munich and even makes the international headlines on CNN, BBC or others.

First and foremost, for God’s sake, DON’T BRING your passport with you! Aussies, I’m talking to you! So many Aussie passports go missing every year in the drunken debauchery of the festivities that the UK embassy has a special make shift ‘table consulate’ just for that purpose. For Australian advice check here.

These are my suggestions, other people do it differently:

  • DO bring a copy of your passport just in case you need ID
  • DON’T bring Credit Cards or anything you care about losing. If you do, put them in a safe place.
  • DO determine an amount of cash you will spend and stick to it. It becomes harder and harder as the night goes on to not spend money. Food is expensive, between 10-20 euros a plate, and beer is between 10-11 euros, so money can go fast! There are ATMs so if you decided to bring your ATM card, you will be able to take out more money if need be.
  • DO bring old shoes you don’t mind getting muddy, dusty, scuffed, etc.
  • DON’T wear uncomfortable heels ladies! You will hate them after an hour, or worse-you could be the girl who trips off the table bench drunkenly into the other festival goers. Don’t be that girl!
  • DO layer your clothing. Remember it’s hot inside the tents for the most part, but Autumn in Munich can be unpredictable, so bring a sweatshirt and maybe a jacket for leaving in the night. There is nothing worse then leaving the tent at night and freezing your toosh off because you thought the dirndl looked better without a jacket. Also, those heels are sheer torture as you make your walk to the subway.

4) What should I wear? How do I get Oktoberfest clothes?

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Considering the tents are crowded, hot, and drunkenly messy, this is something you should think about a bit before you arrive.

Dress wisely! There’s no going back once you’re there!

Munich has tons of places to buy the traditional Bavarian Oktoberfest outfits such as lederhosen and dirndls’. In fact, even the Munich main train station sets up stalls so you can get off the train with your buddies and all buy lederhosen first thing. They vary in prices, but be warned, these outfits do not come cheap! A ‘cheap’ dirndl will run you at least 60 euros without the shirt (at least another 20-30 euros) and lederhosen are at least 150 or so depending on quality of leather. They do have packages which usually end up a bunch cheaper, but know that if you want the whole shebang, you will pay.

There are a number of outlets around Munich downtown that sell used dirndl’s and lederhosen for a little bit cheaper. There is one second hand shop down by Karl’s Platz I went to several times and they have a good selection. You could also buy used ones on eBay, but I really recommend trying them on in a shop instead. The sizes are a bit funny, and the dirndl’s usually run a bit small to give you that hoisted-breast-shelf look.

Ladies: in case you’re wondering. There’s no need to feel bad about not having the super cleavage you will no doubt notice when running around the Oktoberfest. It’s all smoke and mirrors, baby! There is a special second bra that goes with the outfit which you should buy separately if you want the authentic Bavarian cleavage look. (You’re welcome!)  It’s more like an underboob harness and is around 15 euros. You can find them at most places that sell lingerie shops in Bavaria.

3. How much money should I bring and where should I stay?

This totally depends on you as an individual and how much you will realistically eat or drink. I would recommend eating right as you get there because those beers are a liter each. Once you drink one of those, you may not be hungry anymore. Drinking on an empty stomach usually doesn’t make for good judgement.

  • Keep in mind food is 10-20 euros a plate, and each beer is roughly 11 euros.
  • Each person can easily spend 50-60 euros a piece, so plan accordingly

For lodging, unsurprisingly, everything books up really quickly, so reserve in advance!

  • Hotels for two people are usually minimum 200 euros a night, but you can secure cheaper pricing way beforehand.
  • Hostels are pretty expensive, around 60-75 euros minimum during Oktoberfest and they book up quickly so reserve in advance.
  • Try Airbnb during this time to get last minute lodging and better deals. Many people rent out their couches, so consider this if you only need a place to crash for a night or too without the frills of a hotel.
  • Consider staying at a campground
  • Consider staying at one of the cities 1-2 hours away and taking the train in and out of town: Nurenburg, Regensburg, Ingolstadt, etc

2. How to get into a tent

This is the most part, getting into a tent is hard. Really. And it can get very annoying if you are with a group of people getting turned away from every tent you attempt. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, it’s all about timing.

First off, while it’s fun to bring a big group of people, unless you have table reservations, realize that you won’t be able to realistically sit together at a table unless you go EARLY in the morning. Especially the first day. People hang out there sometimes as early at 6 am in order to get into the tents early to find a spot. If you go to the Munich forums, people do sell a few spots at their tables, so check Toytown and the Munich Facebook groups. Often, at the last minute, people end up selling a whole table, or at least a few seats at one. If you buy a seat, it usually includes 2 beers, or two beers and a roasted chicken. Every tent is a bit different, so it’s best to check beforehand.

There are places online you can try to reserve tables, but this is usually done VERY far in advance (some people do it 6 months to a year beforehand). You can try to book with individual tents here.

If you go with two people, the chances are pretty good you will get in and you can probably snag two seats with a group somewhere. Four people is tougher, especially in the evening. Try to find the side entrances, those are your best bet. Waiting in front is a waste of time in my opinion unless you already know someone who is inside. (If you are ALONE with friends inside, many times they can come out to get you if they tell the bouncer).

Sidenote: people try to duck under the tape sometimes, and the bouncers are NOT amused by this. Although I have seen people get away with it, I wouldn’t try it because those dudes go through a lot on a daily basis at Oktoberfest and have zero tolerance for stunts.

1. Helpful tip for the day? 

Drunk passed out people oktoberfest

Don’t be these guys!

Best tip I can give you: try not to drink too much!

Yes, this sounds obvious, but there are entire sites dedicated to people losing their dignity all over the tents and streets of Munich. Remember, most people go for the whole day. Since getting seats is easier early on, again OBVIOUS, but remember to EAT before you start drinking! And keep munching on snacky food such as those gigantic pretzels while you are there. The pretzels are 5 euros each but worth it-yep, expensive!

Liter beers at 6% alcohol are a lot more at once than many of us are used to, so just pace yourself and you’ll last a lot longer!  You don’t want to be the person who has to leave all the fun early because you got carried away too soon! 🙂

Also, they DO have non-alcoholic beer, so if you are worried about drinking with everyone else but don’t want to get smashed, order non-alcoholic beer! It looks and tastes the same, and you can Prost (cheers or toast) along with everyone else consequence-free! 🙂

Hope those tips were helpful, do you have any to add? 

Feel free to ask me any other questions maybe I could help with! 🙂

Have you gone and had different experiences? Let me know what you think? 

2 Minnesotans, a Saudi, an Israeli and a Mexican: it’s not a joke, it’s an afterparty

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Jun 29, 2009
By Andrea Hunt, http://www.eChinacities.com

If I have learned anything after being in China a few years, I think it’s the lesson that you can be friends with people with whom you never thought you had anything in common with. It seems that oddly enough, the only thing at times that expats share is the commonality that they aren’t Chinese. While naturally we all have Chinese friends, I think sometimes it can be surprising to us at how many different friends we can have here in China. This is how you get two Minnesotans, a Saudi, an Israeli and a Mexican, among other nationalities, at an after party in Hangzhou.

Cultural combinations in In Club in Hangzhou china

In the small Chinese town I used to live in called Zhuji, we had a group of 5 American expats and an older Aussie lady with kids our age. Despite the five of us being American, none of us would have ever meet in the USA under any regular circumstances. People always assume that simply because you are from the same country, you have something in common, but everyone knows how fallacious this argument is. We had a hippie, a jock, a stoner philosopher and a wandering escapist; basically, we only shared the same location, yet we ended up becoming close friends. I tend to believe that most of the expats in China are of a certain personality. Usually in some moment of last minute insanity, we chose to pick up our entire lives, leaving everything we knew behind along with all the people we loved, to move to a foreign country of which we know nothing and no one and not a shred of Chinese. It takes a certain kind of person to do this; these are the majority of the expats who come to China so what you end up with are a lot of crazy, impulsive, outgoing, independent people who are more open about other countries because we are all strangers here.

Worldwide there are always clashing cultures, countries, and religions. History is always a factor, as well as worldwide ongoing conflicts. However there are certain instances in China where being an expat in China has removed the sense of judgment people normally possess at home. I think many times in your own country, the reality is that you stick to people and places that you know and therefore you are always in a venue with other like minded individuals while here we are all forced to go to the same events and bars. This makes a huge difference and you can get so many races, cultures, nationalities and sexual orientations all together and see what happens.

Here you find yourself sitting around a table with people literally from 10 different countries and backgrounds and totally different professions and pre-China lives. But here our lives have all come together, albeit for only a short while. You have people from England, Germany, US, Italy, Libya, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Colombia, etc. all getting together to go to a music festival in the middle of China. After a while, you stop noticing how unique it is until you return to your own country and realize everyone at the bar is also from your country.

One of the most interesting cultural experiences I have had in China was in Hangzhou. Hangzhou has a fairly small expat population and a limited variety of venues you can go and hear decent music. We had started out the night at “Maya Bar” with some Israelis who were friends with my Colombian friend in Yiwu. It was Thursday, and “In Club” Hangzhou used to have Latino, Arabic, Indian, Caribbean nights weekly which was truly one of the weirdest, coolest smorgasbord of people you can imagine. They warmed everyone up with a buffet coupled with an open bar to get all these people meshing and dancing more easily. However, as opposed to many of the events in Hangzhou, Thursday night’s “weird cultural combo parties” ended at 2am and everyone had to figure out what to do afterwards. So one night, it was an especially interesting mix of people because a large group of Mexicans were having a “bad fashion” party on the first floor and coming up to dance with everyone else upstairs. I was wandering around in between the two parties marveling at the salsa music one minute and Turkish pop the next followed by Caribbean maraca songs the next. My friend, who was also from Minnesota, and I were with the Spanish speaking-Israelis and the rest of the Mexicans when we met a vivacious Jordanian girl who was studying in Hangzhou. I went outside to use the phone and noticed a guy sitting on bench extremely bored and started talking to him where we established that this was funny because he was Saudi and I was American and not a usual combination at a bar.

Soon the clock struck 2 and they started kicking everyone out, my Minnesotan friend came up with the grand idea that since he had tons of beers at home, we should just get all the Mexicans and go to his house. I invited the Saudi guy and his 2 Moroccan friends along with the Mexican guy and the Jordanian girl. The taxis pulled up and we hopped into a cab only to realize the Spanish speaking Israeli was in it and we had just barged in on his cab, and so I immediately without thinking invited him along forgetting the fact that it is not necessarily wise to try and mix Israelis and Muslims given all the conflicts in the Middle East. But after several beers and cheap “In Club” alcohol you tend to forget these details. I suddenly realized my error, and immediately asked them if it was OK to which the Spanish-speaking Israeli replied, ”but of course, we are neighbors!” So there we were, two taxis filled with enough cultures, religions, and origins to make literally novels of ethnic jokes that start out: so a Mexican, a Minnesotan, a Jew and a Saudi walk into a bar…

For a group of people who before that night didn’t know each other at all, we ended up staying up late into the night talking about everything, practicing the languages we knew and discussing our sentiments on China and our weird experiences, while drinking beer after beer and laughing at each other’s slurred stories. We danced around the apartment to what most of us in China use as a stereo: an iPod and some Chinese market-bought speakers. It’s surprising how you can get a Jordanian girl and an Israeli dancing salsa while an American girl simultaneously teaches the newfound Saudi friend. Yeah, life is weird here in China, and cool at the same time. Where else this would have happened I don’t know, but we ended up walking away from the after party with a new group of friends that I still have to this day three years later.

***

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